SIDEBAR: Choosing and Leaving Science in Four Highly Selective Institutions
A study seeking to discover some of the causes of initial interest in-and attrition from-the natural sciences and engineering among 5,320 students entering Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Yale University in 1988 found that, except for women's dislike of competitive educational environments, gender had little impact on either choice of or persistence in most science and engineering majors. In mathematics and computer sciences, women did persist less successfully than men (Strenta et al. 1994, p. 513, 528). Nonetheless, "in every field of natural science and engineering, once science grades in the first two years were taken into account, gender was not a factor in persistence" (p. 529, italics added).
The study also found that, although 35 percent of women compared with 49 percent of men expressed initial interest in science, "once preadmission measures of developed abilities-[test scores and science grades]-were taken into account, gender added little" to such a choice (1994, p. 513). Of the 2,276 students initially interested in science (from a pool of 5,320 matriculants at the four institutions), 40 percent eventually dropped out, and smaller proportions of women (48 percent) than men (66 percent) persisted. The "most significant cognitive factor" for both men and women predicting attrition was poor grades in lower division science classes. With grades held equal, women stayed in their biology, engineering, physics, and chemistry majors as often as men; "gender added strongly to grades, however, as a factor" leading to high attrition in certain other science fields (p. 513, 528).
Science majors responding to a questionnaire administered in 1991 showed that many of them find the instruction to be "too competitive," to offer "too few opportunities to ask questions," and to be provided by professors who "were relatively unresponsive, not dedicated, and not motivating" (p. 513).
Although most of the students who left science and engineering did so because of the positive attractions of other fields, many criticized the coursework as too hard, the instruction as inferior, and the atmosphere as excessively competitive. Except for the latter perception, women's classroom experiences were rated about as unpleasant as men's.
To encourage more women to enter science, the study recommends providing
- confidence-building exercises such as research assistantships and mentors
- advice to secondary schools as to what preparation is necessary
- "a grading system whereby talented and hardworking science students have at least the same chance of earning decent grades as all other students have" (p. 544)
The researchers also believe one approach to be "counterproductive: Namely, to emphasize the unproven allegation that science faculty are making the lives of women in science especially unpleasant" (p. 544).